Richard Newman

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Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography


Born in Vienna, Alma Rosé (1906-1944) was a gifted violinist with an illustrious concert career. Her mother was the sister of composer, Gustav Mahler, and her famous father, Arnold, conducted orchestras. All the family members were non-observant Jews. Alma was talented, beautiful, audacious, and arrogant. After an unhappy early marriage to Czech violinist Vása Príhoda, she established a remarkable orchestra for women that toured Europe.

As the German Third Reich consolidated its power, her only brother, Alfred, fled to the USA. She managed to bring their widowed father to England, but displaced musicians crowded London making work difficult to find. Alma left her father and returned to the continent, living quietly as a boarder in Holland and giving house concerts when and where she could. She took lovers.

Despite the urging of her family and friends, she kept deferring a return to safety in England. In early 1943, she was arrested and transported to Drancy near Paris, thence to Auschwitz six months later. Initially sent to a barrack for sterilization research, she revealed her musical brilliance and was removed to marginally better accommodations and allowed to assemble an orchestra of women players.

The hungry musicians were granted precarious privileges, but Alma became obsessed with their progress and insisted on a grueling schedule of rehearsal and perfection. Some said that she believed that survival depended on the quality of their playing; others recognized that the music, like a drug, took her out of the horror of her surroundings.

In April 1944, she died suddenly of an acute illness thought to have been caused by accidental food poisoning. In a bizarre and possibly unique act of veneration for Auschwitz, her body was laid "in state" before it was burned. Most members of her camp orchestra survived the war.

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